Guantanamo: Calling All Lawyers
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Calling all lawyers. If anyone is interested in defending Guantanamo detainees or prosecuting them, there is plenty of work to be had. The Supreme Court recently ruled that detainees have constitutional rights and that decision has made a big legal effort even bigger.
As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: At a federal court hearing in Washington this week, a conference call operator dryly noted, this is something new. Dozens of Guantanamo detainee lawyers were on the call. They shouted out the names of the cities they were in - Honolulu, Saint Louis, Las Vegas - and more than 100 lawyers were at the hearing in person. Each represents one or more of the 270 detainees at Guantanamo. The man who has organized all of them is Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Mr. SHAYANA KADIDAL (Staff Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights): When we took the case on in early 2002, nobody wanted to get near it. It took us a couple of weeks to find a local counsel in Washington, D.C. who were, you know, basically just willing to walk the papers across the street for us and file them.
SHAPIRO: Now, the Guantanamo Bay Bar Association, as they jokingly call themselves, consists of about 500 lawyers. They've been newly energized since the Supreme Court ruled last month that civilian courts can hear detainee's claims that they should be free. Some of the attorneys come from massive firms with more than 1,000 lawyers. Like Stephen Oleskey from the mega firm WilmerHale.
Mr. STEPHEN OLESKEY (Partner, WilmerHale Law Firm): It's all about the same principle which is representing people who otherwise will have no representation. That is why you become a lawyer.
SHAPIRO: He estimates that his firm has put in more than 30,000 hours of unpaid work into representing six Bosnians at Guantanamo. That's millions of dollars a year. On the other end of the scale, there's the law firm Tennant Lubell. The firm has two lawyers, Doris Tennant and Ellen Lubell, and they represent one Guantanamo detainee between them. The law firm has spent tens of thousands of dollars on flights to Cuba and translators, and that's not to mention the hours. Here's Ellen Lubell.
Ms. ELLEN LUBELL (Partner, Tennant Lubell Law Firm): Financially, what we decided to do was to try to raise some money from colleagues and friends and family members. And we've been very clear with everybody this is not tax deductible. I mean, that's my specialty area.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LUBELL: And this is not - the people have given anyway.
SHAPIRO: I'm imagining a bake sale: Send us to Guantanamo.
Ms. LUBELL: That's it.
SHAPIRO: The government is trying to bolster its legal team, too. Last month, the Justice Department had four attorneys working full time on Guantanamo cases. Now, they're trying to increase the team to 50. The Justice Department put out a call to U.S. attorneys' offices around the country asking for prosecutors interested in trying Guantanamo cases.
Former Justice Official David Rivkin is in regular contact with the administration officials handling the effort.
Mr. DAVID RIVKIN (Former Justice Department Official): It's going to be an unprecedented volume of work.
SHAPIRO: The judge coordinating these cases made the government's life more difficult this week. He said the Justice Department cannot have the month that it wanted to pull these cases together. Instead, things are going to start moving right away. David Rivkin says this is a total role reversal. Usually, government lawyers outnumber private attorneys in any major lawsuit.
Mr. RIVKIN: You have lots and lots of private lawyers acting in the best traditions of their profession representing their clients zealously, filing hundreds and hundreds of cases and motions and challenges. And the government is truly outgunned.
SHAPIRO: The government is trying to figure out a strategy. It has already cleared about 54 men at Guantanamo for release, that's about a fifth of the detainee population. Shayana Kadidal, who has organized the detainee lawyers, doesn't expect the government to actually try to litigate all these cases.
Mr. KADIDAL: My suspicion is for the vast majority of people at Guantanamo that their hearing is sort of - seems like it's around the corner, then the government is probably going to move to release them.
SHAPIRO: In the meantime, these lawsuits have not been a bad thing for the Center for Constitutional Rights. When Kadidal started working there just after 9/11, the non-profit had five lawyers on the staff. Now, the group is three times that size.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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